Lessons I Learned from James and Reba

This year, I want to begin the new year with lessons I learned from my parents, James and Reba Kessler. Actually, there are two conversations, and one teaching lesson my mother gave to a store keeper regarding me. These three, more than all other conversations, influenced me and how my life has turned out.

I am going to first share them, and then in the coming few Blogs will illustrate each of these as they relate to current events. To me, they are lessons to live by, guideposts on our journey. And I believe they highlight very real truths.

Though I can not remember why my father said this to me, I suspect it had to do with his strict, but honorable, approach to education. As the school administrator, his high standards, and his expectation that they would be adhered to, often made him the brunt of criticism and hostility in our community. Given his size and his demeanor, few dared tackle him directly. But, I was a convenient fallback target.

It was after one of those episodes, while I was bemoaning something hurtful that had been done to me or him, that Dad likely said, “Lee, we do not live this life to be liked. We live it to be effective.” There you have it. A life philosophy. He lived it. I watched him do it. And, I would like to think that in some measure, I have duplicated him.

The second conversation had to do with our government and society’s tendency to mistake sympathy for empathy. Being a compassionate people, we all too often project onto people who are in need that they are victims, and need our help perpetually. Many times that help backfires for the giver and the receiver, as it lowers self-esteem and creates dependency.

Again, I do not remember why my father said this to me. My examination of this, my rumination on it, set me on a course in my own life. Here is what he said, “Lee, anytime you do for someone what they could do, or should do for themselves, you degrade and demean them.”

I will leave you to digest that one a bit, and come back to it in the future.

The third was an experience I had as a small child when my mother took me to the only grocery store in our little town of 900 people. It was a small, family-run business, and the place my mother got our food. I was little– perhaps two years old–walking on my own, but not tall enough to clear the cookie bins that stood on the floor, near the counter and register.

Back then, it was like bulk nuts etc. today. Bulk cookies. You would open the bin, and place as many as you wanted in a bag. Well, as my mother and I came in, I saw the cookies in the bin, and was drawn to the pink ones. Strong enough to open the lid, I did so, reached in, and took a cookie. To me, it seemed they were there for me to take, so I did.

After we finished walking around the store, my mother came to the counter and put down the items she had picked up. The owner rang them up, and my mother said, “And don’t forget the cookie she took.” Now mind you, there was no sign of the cookie now, as I had eaten it while walking around the store. And keep in mind I looked a lot like Shirley Temple–pretty much adorable, with big dimples!

The owner said, “Oh, that’s all right. There’s no charge for the cookie. It’s fine.” From his point of view it was “sampling” or some other type of promotional marketing, or just a nice gesture to a regular customer. But, to my mother it was altogether something different.

Though we had very little money, basically were pretty poor since my dad was putting two sons through college in a private men’s college, and he lived in a house with no insulation in the coldest area of Western New York State–sustaining us on just a small Principal’s salary–my mother responded. I was standing to her left, not tall enough to reach the counter, but I remember this exchange.

“Thank you, but no. I am trying to teach her not to steal. And, in reaching in there without asking you or me, she took something that did not belong to her, and had not been approved for her. It’s a small thing, but I am trying to teach her not to just take things she wants, but that we pay for what we receive. I do not mind that she reached in and grabbed something she wanted. But, I want her to learn that she is to pay for it. We are responsible. We do not take anything that does not belong to us.”

There you have it. Three conversations that started to define my life and vision. I am sure there were many, many conversations I had with one or the other of my parents over the years. And I am sure we covered many important issues. But, for some reason, these are the three I remember.

These are the three I took ownership of. More to come in future Blogs about those three points and the world we live in.

Happy New Year, everyone!

4 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned from James and Reba

  1. Jackie

    My mom taught her girls 2 of your golden rules. She would say, nothing is free, you have to work for what you want and never ask anyone to do what you can do yourself.
    She also taught us, do not loan / lend anything out unless you are willing to not get it back. This lesson was taught to me when I lent my new piano book to a class mate. He never returned it which upset me because we were not rich. 3 girls being raised my our mother.
    Lessons I live by to this day.

    1. Lee Kessler Post author

      That is a great story, Jackie. I appreciate you sharing it, as I expect many of us were raised similarly, no matter where we are from. Our values have sustained us, and now it is time to make sure we instill these values in others–especially outside our families.

  2. Eileen Batson

    Wanted you to know that I appreciate your writings as they encourage me to think and reflect on a variety of my own actions and those of others.

    Today’s message about the lessons learned from your parents brought to my mind one specific one on sharing when I was about 4 or 5 years old. Dad was driving mom and me somewhere and I announced that I was thirsty. Dad pulled over to a store on our route that had one of the big old white and rust ice chests that held various brands and flavors of soda. Mom got out, picked one out, paid for it and handed me the open bottle which I gratefully took and drank my fill. Mom then said she wanted a drink too and to pass her the bottle. My reply, “This one you gave me. It is mine. If you were thirsty you should have gotten one.” This was not what she had expected to hear. To my surprise she gently took the bottle from my hand and without taking a sip just poured it out the window as we drove along saying…”It is important to share.”


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